Opponents are waging an uphill struggle. Because Pebble is on state land, the key decisions will come from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources whose commissioner, Tom Irwin, is a former mining executive and whose mission is to promote development.
"It's the fox guarding the chicken coop," said Norman Van Vactor, Bristol Bay manager for Peter Pan Seafoods, which operates the area's oldest cannery.
In the state capital this year, Northern Dynasty lobbyists beat back legislation that would have created a game refuge overlapping the mine site and would have barred polluting or diverting water from salmon streams. But the bills will be revived next year.
So far, Republican Gov. Sarah Palin has remained neutral. She has fished in Bristol Bay herself, and her husband fishes commercially. They named one of their daughters Bristol.
The outcome may hinge less on environmental values than on which economic resource Alaskans value most.
"You can't eat gold," says Robin Samuelsen, a commercial fisherman and chief of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham, the region's principal town.
Bristol Bay's fishery, with $450 million in annual economic benefits, employs 10,000 people in seasonal jobs, including 6,800 fishermen. And it could grow in value: Because contaminants in farmed seafood have come to light, consumers are increasingly turning to wild salmon for health benefits and its superior taste.
This time of year, the rivers that feed Bristol Bay are bedecked with racks of drying salmon, ready to be stored for the winter. In an area where imported food is prohibitively expensive, several thousand Athabaskan Indians and Yupik Eskimos depend on fish, moose, caribou, wild greens and berries.
"I'd rather eat porcupine than hamburger," says Jack Hobson, tribal council president of Nondalton, the village closest to the proposed mine. An Athabaskan outpost of about 220 residents, with its homes of weathered clapboard and corrugated steel, scattered along a dirt road, is plastered with anti-Pebble signs.
Hobson has been a vocal opponent of the mine since the Renewable Resources Coalition flew him and other native leaders to see mines in Nevada. There, he said, they saw landscape that looked like it had been "bombed" -- huge pits, contaminated water and depleted aquifers that have forced a local Indian tribe to truck in drinking water.
Northern Dynasty's helicopters, he said, have scared away caribou for the last two years, depriving villagers of a diet staple. Once the mine is built, he added, "dust will blow all over the plants and the animals will eat this stuff, and -- oh boy!"
The region's 50 commercial lodges are also threatened. The international sportfishing mecca attracts anglers who pay as much as $8,000 a week to fly in and cast for rainbow trout that measure up to 3 feet.
But mining would mean high-paying, steady jobs at a time when fish prices remain volatile and the North Slope oil that has buoyed the economy is dwindling.
Pebble would run for 50 to 80 years, said Bruce Jenkins, Northern Dynasty's chief operating officer, and "go a long way toward eradicating poverty in southwest Alaska forever."
In the last two years, Northern Dynasty has mounted a massive public relations campaign, helicoptering in nearly 1,000 politicians, business leaders, teachers and other influential Alaskans to the site.
The company has staged 800 presentations, in remote villages as well as in Anchorage, offering residents expense-paid trips. Tribal leaders have been hired as "community outreach people," and more than 120 local residents are on Northern Dynasty's payroll as $17-an-hour drill assistants, bear guards and other mine-related jobs.
Opponents accuse the company of buying influence, but Magee replies: "We don't apologize for hiring local people."
And opponents also have deep-pocket patrons, including Anchorage investor Robert B. Gillam, head of McKinley Capital Management Inc., who has a private lodge 24 miles from the Pebble claim. The foundation of another wealthy angler, Intel Corp. pioneer Gordon Moore, has awarded $5 million to local conservationists, including Earthworks, a Washington-based group organizing jewelers to boycott Pebble gold.
In Newhalen, a village of 120 on a windy promontory above Lake Iliamna, Ray Wassillie, the local tribal chief, has a part-time job as a fish observer, and his three sons are also employed by Northern Dynasty.
"No one else is offering our kids the opportunity to work," said Wassillie. Fewer young people in the village "are going to jail when they're doing nothing. Drugs and alcohol become a big part of life," he said.
Home heating fuel costs Wassillie $6,000 yearly, and gas to run his four-wheelers for subsistence hunting runs more than $5 a gallon. The bay's six-week fishing season "doesn't generate enough income for my living standards," he said.
Beyond the local economy, Northern Dynasty says, the mine will bring benefits to the nation. While critics say that gold -- 75% of which is used in jewelry -- is an unnecessary luxury, the company says the copper to be produced by the mine is "a strategic metal." U.S. copper imports are growing as voracious economies in China and India compete for metal.
But environmentalists, citing the web of interconnected streams, ponds and groundwater, say the risk is unacceptable. Salmon is the region's keystone species, food for bears, eagles -- and people. And as the fish decompose after spawning, their carcasses fertilize plants that nourish caribou and other wildlife.
Despite a rash of negative publicity, the company declines to rule out the use of cyanide, a toxin that helps extract metal from ore and has contaminated watersheds throughout the West.
The region is one of the most earthquake-prone areas on the globe, but Northern Dynasty counters that its dams would be engineered to withstand a 7.8-level quake.
"Most Americans will never get to Bristol Bay," said Brian Kraft, who owns a local fishing lodge and works for the conservation group Trout Unlimited. "But they see our bears playing in waterfalls on the Discovery Channel. They can experience the taste of wild salmon.
"They know that we can destroy places like this, but we can't create them."